The dropping of leaves by a plant is called abscission. It is a natural order of progression during the life cycle of most plants. In the process of leaf abscission, plants periodically shed their leaves. Leaf abscission involves a number of biochemical and physical changes. The chlorophyll begins to break down, revealing other colours like oranges and yellows that were always present in the leaf, but which were masked by an abundance of the green pigment. The fallen leaves dry, yet retaining their colours.
Though wilted, the leaf was elegant in its innate beauty. As I was looking at it, I was reminded of Wabi-Sabi, an ancient aesthetic philosophical concept in Zen Buddhism. It is rather difficult to translate the term in English. Wabi roughly means ‘the elegant beauty of humble simplicity’, and Sabi refers to ‘the passing of time and subsequent deterioration’. It urges one to find beauty in every aspect of imperfection while acknowledging its impermanence in nature. It draws attention to three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. Recognition of these aspects facilitates a more connected way of living not just with nature but also within our inner selves. Awareness of the impermanent nature of phenomena helps us to adopt a more reflective stance to our attachments and enables us to prepare for separation and loss that is inevitable.
It is also reflective of the Buddhist concept of Anicca - that all existence is temporary - which is evocatively articulated in the Mahaparinibbana-sutta (Discourse on the Final Nirvana), which describes Buddha’s last days and his passage into parinibbana.
Aniccaa vata sa"nkhaaraa — uppaada vaya dhammino
Uppajjitvaa nirujjhanti — tesa.m vuupasamo sukho.
Impermanence pervades all things,
They arise and cease, that is their nature:
They come into being and pass away,
Release from them is bliss supreme.
The dry leaf on the ground, with nothing to anchor it, seemed lost in its own world, drifting in the wind. Where was it heading to? Shelley sought the answer in his “Ode to the West Wind”, a poem that was written in the woods as he was observing the multicolored dried leaves buffeted by the wind.
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The poem was written under strained emotional circumstances and reflects Shelley’s quest for renewal.
Four months before Shelley began writing it, his son William had died; the year before, he had lost his daughter Clara and he himself was plagued by ill health and creditors. In addition to his personal woes, the public had been largely indifferent to or critical of his writings. The poet asks the wind to scatter his writings across the earth in hope of inspiring new thoughts and works. The play on the words “leaves” is interesting as they are found both in trees as well as in books!
The wind is an important part of nature’s regenerative cycle. The leaf is bound to fall from the tree one day, but doesn’t ‘pass away’, it ‘passes on’. It aligned with forces of nature while it was attached to the tree. Its journey continues even after it falls down onto the earth albeit in a different form. It will soon be digested by various actors on the ground: worms, insects and birds till all that will remain are its skeleton which will be absorbed deeper into the earth. When the leaf returns to its original oneness with the earth, it resumes its own nature. In death it will leave more nutrients in the soil than it ever consumed during its lifetime.
Every leaf teaches us something about life. We are leaves ourselves. At some time we too will be separated from the tree of life and meander in life like this little leaf. We have had our seasons of flourishing and inevitably over a course of time, we are back to our bare bones.
Nothing ever stays exactly the same and nothing is ever repeated in exactly the same way again. This was wonderfully expressed by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus some 2,500 years ago, who remarked, “Everything flows, nothing stands still…nothing endures but change.”
Our life is like a dance on the Mobius strip. The Mobius strip is a surface with only one side and one boundary. As we trace our finger on what seems to be the outside, we find ourselves suddenly on what seems to be the inside. If we continue, we will find ourselves back on what seemed to be the outside. If life is a Mobius strip, whatever is inside us merges with what is outside and vice versa and both influence each other. In that exchange we co-create what we call reality. In so doing we return to the wholeness, the natural state, in which we were born. Whitman is said it perceptively, “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses”
Leaves remind us that to truly live, we must face and embrace impermanence and change as a natural part of life, in our own inner garden.
Impermanence is the beauty and the energy of life.
The wilted leaf
Glows with inner light
Merging with the earth
From non being
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